"Allegiance" does something that I've been looking for for some time: it fills in a few blanks between episodes four and five. Namely, it helps develop Han, Luke and Leia a little more, explaining (in part) how Han decides to stick with the Rebellion, and shows Luke developing his Force abilities a little more. However, while these classic characters do feature in the novel, they are not the main protagonists. Written by the man who arguably kicked off the Expanded Universe line of novels with his Thrawn/Heir To The Empire trilogy (perhaps my favourite in the whole series), the novel had a lot going for it even before I opened to the first page.
Instead, Zahn's best creation, Mara Jade, returns - this time still only nineteen years old, still serving the Emperor as his private spy and assassin. Zahn deftly shows us her affect on others, as they discover her true identity: it's as if you compressed all the fear and suspicion created by the Gestapo, and distilled it into a nineteen-year-old girl.
Mara isn't as hard as she was in Zahn's other Star Wars novels; perhaps a reaction to how she's portrayed in other novels that feature her so much (specifically the New Jedi Order and Legacy Of The Force series). Regardless, she's still coldly calculating and without qualms of using a heavy hand, if needed. Her interactions with Darth Vader are enlightening, too, and in some instances help give the Sith Lord more of a rounded, flawed character (his obsession with Luke and Leia, in particular, and how it clouds his judgement).
The other main characters are five Stormtroopers that, after a minor scuffle with an Imperial agent that results in a casualty, desert their posts. Already disillusioned by what they are witnessing in the service of the Empire, they get caught up in a sector struggle between space pirates and local authorities, becoming vigilantes. Inadvertently, however, they end up aiding the Rebellion.
Each of the strands of the novel eventual connect, bringing the wider picture into focus, with the ending being very satisfying - both showing the Rebellion's strengths and also the Empire's. Political intrigue is the order of the day, as separatists help to boost the power and scope of a local pirate syndicate, hoping to create an opening to declare independence from the Empire.
Zahn's writing continues to be of the utmost calibre, never dull, and always engaging. While this isn't his best novel, fans of the series will enjoy the references to future events in both the movies and also the following novels, and you can't fault his story-telling ability. Well worth reading, "Allegiance" is a novel to make you think about the Star Wars universe from another perspective, lacking the rather clean lines of the original trilogy, showing that the Empire wasn't the united juggernaut that's portrayed on screen.